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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Trump's ultimate peace plan is meaningless and a mere distraction from Netanyahu's faltering grip on power

The US president has hitched his wagon to the current Israeli prime minister but those on the ground and many in the international community can see the writing on the wall

A Palestinian family watch from a balcony as Israeli bulldozers demolish shops in the Arab-inhabited Shuafat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
A Palestinian family watch from a balcony as Israeli bulldozers demolish shops in the Arab-inhabited Shuafat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

It might not seem that way but Donald Trump has done a great service to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He will not practically advance peace or even get close to ending one of history’s most intractable conflicts. Far from it. Rather, the Trump administration is ending the long-held notion that the US could be an impartial peace-broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Such a shift in perception is necessary to create the conditions for equitable negotiations and, ultimately, for peace to take hold properly. Mr Trump’s peace plan, which the White House is rumoured to be releasing soon, could cement this shift and in doing so, put an end to the Oslo peace process.

Of course, Israeli politicians and Mr Trump’s supporters don’t see the US president’s actions in this light. They see a president who promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a de facto acceptance of Israel’s control over the contested city. They see a president who ended funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) as part of a greater attack on spending. They see a president who closed the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Washington office, which opened in the early 1990s when a blinkered world thought peace could be imminent. In the eyes of Mr Trump’s most vociferous supporters and ideological cohorts, the Palestinian people have always been the aggressor in the conflict and have been helped by an international community that loathes Israel.

Regardless of these extreme and illogical interpretations of the conflict, Mr Trump’s unilateral actions have shattered any semblance of the US as an impartial broker. As the primary mediator in the 1993 Oslo Accords, the US was supposed to be a neutral arbiter of the process. Yet Washington watched from the sidelines as Israel dismissed the Oslo agreement and laid waste to any equitable two-state solution by entrenching its settlement project, all while steadily increasing military aid to Tel Aviv and shielding Israel from international retribution. By appealing to Israel’s every whim and desire, Mr Trump is not rewriting US policy on the conflict; he has simply removed the lip service previous administrations paid to existing peace agreements and the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people.

From this perspective, the viability and exact provisions of Mr Trump’s ultimate peace plan are essentially meaningless. Let’s say we are going to split a pizza but before we can hammer out the details of how much each side will get, I’ve eaten half of it. This old adage essentially captures the first two years of the Trump administration's approach to Israel and Palestine and will likely explain much of his ultimate deal. Take the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a major final-status issue previous administrations refused to address. Instead of leaving the issue to negotiation, Mr Trump simply delivered it on a platter to Israel. This underlined his aggressive anti-Palestinian position and his ultimate desire to empower the current Israeli government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, told The National this week, Mr Trump has “already issued what he wanted” by declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and cutting funding for UNRWA. Further, Mr Shaath noted, the US president "declared that he rejects a Palestinian state and therefore we [Palestinians] are not expecting anything from him on this deal”.

Perhaps the most interesting plot line surrounding the “deal of the century”, as Mr Trump likes to call his peace plan, is the US president's all-in bet on Mr Netanyahu. Narrowly surviving his parliamentary coalition falling apart this week, Mr Netanyahu’s hold on power is remarkably slim. After the surprise resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman over the recent ceasefire in Gaza, it looked like education minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the extreme right-wing Jewish Home party, would leave Mr Netanyahu’s coalition as well.

Such a move would have forced early elections and a possible sudden departure for Mr Netanyahu. Mr Bennet’s role in proposed early elections is critical, as other members of his party have come out firmly against Mr Trump’s peace plan. Speaking to diplomats in Jerusalem this week, justice minister Ayelet Shaked said any proposal is a “waste of time” because the gap between Israelis and Palestinians is too big.

Mr Trump's Israel policy has been shaped by a close connection with casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. The billionaire donor has given handsomely to Republican politicians who support pro-Israel platforms and especially Benjamin Netanyahu. For example, he purchased Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper with the biggest circulation in the country, to transform it into a propaganda machine for Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Few in the US mainstream media have questioned the wisdom of supporting Mr Netanyahu’s approach to the conflict at a time when his government is hanging onto a razor-thin majority in parliament. If Israel went to early elections and Mr Netanyahu lost power, how would the Trump administration approach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? If history is any guide, Mr Trump will continue to defer to Mr Adelson and ensure that his ample campaign donations keep flowing.

The Jewish Home party, with its brand of no-apology politics, represents the future for Israel and the answer to the question. Having secured US recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and established an unbreakable matrix of control in the West Bank, Israeli politicians no longer have to pay shallow lip service to the two-state solution. Sure, they can bemoan the lack of peace on the ground but they are secure in knowing that Israel has, essentially, won this round of the conflict.

As such, Mr Trump’s ultimate peace plan will serve as a distraction from this new chapter. US media will cover the plan when it is finally revealed as if its provisions actually hold meaning but those on the ground and many in the international community see the writing on the wall.

The crux for Israel and the US as its backer is now the maintenance of their new reality. There is no viable challenger to Israel’s power in the region. The real threat to Israel is internal and stems from the difficulty of maintaining a military occupation. Economically, culturally and morally occupying millions of people is destructive. The boycott movement, while not in a position to inflict significant economic harm on Israel, does have the power to remind Israel there is a cost to its occupation. Airbnb’s recent decision to stop advertising homes in the occupied West Bank and the subsequent hysterical reaction from Israel is evidence of how sensitive Israel is when confronted with the reality of its behaviour.

As Israeli politicians lurch further to the right and openly embrace colonialism without fear of isolation, civil society efforts will be an increasingly powerful tool in Palestinian hands. One thing is for sure: Mr Trump has destroyed the notion of the US as an impartial broker and history will one day look back on that realisation with gratitude.

Joseph Dana is the editor of emerge85, a project exploring change in the emerging world and its global impact